It's looking good for 'US Thatcher'

THIS may be a gruesome summer for Bill Clinton, but not for a snub- nosed, Georgia congressman with arguably the sharpest tongue in contemporary US politics. So far, 1994 has been a great year for Newt Gingrich.

Mr Gingrich is the scourge of the Democrats on crime, health- care and all things 'liberal' and 1995, just possibly, could be an even better year - if he is elected as the first Republican Speaker in nearly half a century.

If so, it would be supreme proof that in politics, the frontal assault pays. Since his election in 1978, Mr Gingrich has challenged the status quo. In 1989 he was elected Minority Whip, the second ranking Republican job in the House, over the wishes of his own party establishment. But today, he is running unopposed to succeed retiring Minority leader Bob Michel. A big enough anti-Clinton landslide in this autumn's mid-term elections, and 51-year-old Mr Gingrich will become the third ranking figure in the US constitution.

He is a ferocious nationalist who has been called an American Gaullist, though his radical conservatism puts him closer to an American Thatcher. His credo is an 'American Opportunity Society,' founded on lower taxes, absolute priority for the market, more defence spending and no quarter for criminals, and invariably spiced with hyperbole.

The 1985 Reagan-Gorbachev meeting was 'the most dangerous summit for the West since Chamberlain met Hitler at Munich'. On the crime bill this week, a proposal to release minor drug offenders cluttering overflowing jails would amount to 'putting 10,000 drug dealers on the streets.'

Few politicians are as unattractive as Newt Gingrich in full partisan cry. But come what may in November, he is the man with whom Mr Clinton must deal. Mercifully, there is another Gingrich, with whom the President can. For one thing, Mr Gingrich knows on which side his conservative bread is buttered. Last Thursday evening, Gingrich the street-fighter was gloating at the crime bill rout which he had helped engineer. Early the next day, however, Gingrich the realist was on the phone to White House Chief of Staff Leon Panetta, offering compromise. Torpedoing anti-crime legislation is not good business for the Republicans.

The concessions he wins will be an indication of his clout. He has been talking of dollars 3 to dollars 4bn ( pounds 1.9 to pounds 2.6bn) off the social and crime prevention components of the dollars 33bn measure, plus tougher sentencing provisions. He will probably secure less - but in all probability enough for a compromise and passage of a bill, this weekend.

And if the ideology is right, Mr Gingrich will also stretch out his hand across the party divide. By delivering 132 Republican votes in the House last autumn, he gave Mr Clinton one of his biggest wins, the Nafta free trade agreement which only 102 of 250-plus Democratic congressmen supported.

When first elected, Mr Gingrich proclaimed his goal of Republican control of the House by 1992. For all his efforts that year, the party came up 80 short. But this November? 'Between 20 and 70,' Mr Gingrich crows when asked his prediction of Republican gains. Anything over 40, and the House would have its first Republican Speaker since Eisenhower was President - Newt Gingrich.

The Treasury Department's top lawyer, Jean Hanson, resigned yesterday under pressure over her role in the Whitewater affair, Reuter reports. Her resignation comes a day after that of Roger Altman, the Deputy Treasury Secretary.

(Photograph omitted)

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